“And so, in an age of divisive politics, Nike had suddenly found a way to embrace and commodify protest; they would have a free marketing base like no other…”
ince the advent of 2020, the hip brand Nike has released over 40 new variations of its much-coveted Air Jordan sneakers, with a further 60 styles expected to follow before the holiday season. Manufactured in the spring of 1984, the original Air Jordans were produced exclusively for the future six-time NBA Finals MVP Michael Jordan, before being made available to the public later the same year. The production of this new retro line has skillfully coincided with the release of the already critically acclaimed ESPN production The Last Dance, which documents Jordan’s swan song—the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 title-winning season—while also covering other significant chapters in the “Black Cat’s” remarkable career. In this premeditated renaissance, the value of Air Jordan merchandise has once again skyrocketed, with the resale value of the legendary Air Jordan 1 “Chicago” sneakers recently doubling, making them a worthy investment for anyone looking to profiteer from the renewed brand interest in the one they simply call Mike.
As a first-round pick of the 1984 draft, Jordan became quickly regarded as one of the best players in the NBA, and he soon started pulling lucrative sponsorship deals. As such, he notably appeared in advertisements for the would-be corporate giants Gatorade and McDonald’s. But, ultimately, it was with Nike and the creation of the Air Jordan sub-brand that fostered the most successful and profitable of collaborations, propelling Jordan into the realm of brand-made manifest. Designed by Peter Moore, Tinker Hatfield, and Bruce Kilgore, Air Jordans were marketed as embodying the limitless spirit of Michael Jordan—a spirit personified by his unparalleled leaping ability that had earned him the nickname of “His Airness” and is captured in the iconic Jumpman logo. Indeed, when kids queue for hours—if not days—to buy these $250 kicks, they are not just buying footwear, they are buying an idea; they are buying into the boundless dream of Michael Jordan: the American dream.
It would no longer be a choice of this brand or that brand, this sneaker or that sneaker; suddenly buying a brand of shoe would be a political act.
For decades Air Jordan, both the man and the brand has largely avoided controversy, maintaining a carefully curated image centered entirely around one man and his dedication to being the best at his craft. However, in The Last Dance, Jordan is challenged on why he refused to endorse Democrat Harvey Gantt, an African American, who was running against the incumbent Republican Jesse Helms, who had filibustered both the Voting Rights Act and the Senate’s proposal to establish Martin Luther King Day, during the 1990 Senate race in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina. Jordan, who, at the time, had already won the first of his five NBA MVP awards, explained away his actions (or, rather, his inaction) by simply and famously stating “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
In stark contrast to many athletes of the modern era, who have regularly used their actions inside ballparks, football stadiums, and wrestling arenas alike, to push political agendas, Jordan has recently brushed off the criticism for not supporting Gantt and using his stature and celebrity to promote messages of racial equality. To this point, Jordan labeled his comments as “off-the-cuff” and justified them by claiming he later made a financial contribution to Gantt’s campaign. Plainly, Jordan’s long distance relationship with politics appears to be a far cry from LeBron James—arguably the best player of the modern era—who has spoken out on issues such as gun violence and has attacked the presidency of Donald Trump.
Of course, in recent years no political act or commentary by a sports star has been more divisive than Kneelgate. In August of 2016, as an act of protest against the treatment of black ethnic minorities by American law enforcement, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick polarized American sports fans and political commentators alike by taking a knee during the traditional pre-game rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. This silent act of defiance is something that Kaepernick would replicate, while, at the same time, inspiring other players to do the same throughout the rest of the season. This, in turn, caused a furious backlash from a subsect of NFL fans who deemed it to be unpatriotic and disrespectful to “the troops.” In response—and in order to protect the NFL brand which had seen its ratings decline by 8% presumably as a result of these player protests—the 49ers released Kaepernick at the end of the season, leaving him unsigned since.
But where one brand saw political protest and activism as an issue that would hurt profits, another saw an opportunity. In 2018, Nike, the brand that had almost single-handedly created the brand incarnate with Michael Jordan and Air Jordans, signed Kaepernick to be the face of its new marketing campaign. And so, in an age of divisive politics, Nike had suddenly found a way to embrace and commodify protest; they would have a free marketing base like no other, piggybacking off the passionate voices of many users of Twitter and other social media platforms, all in the name of commerce.
The Left had heeded Nike’s call. And this was the very political base that had a decade earlier used the same #boycottNike hashtag to denounce Nike’s labor practices, including its use of sweatshops.
It would no longer be a choice of this brand or that brand, this sneaker or that sneaker; suddenly buying a brand of shoe would be a political act. As would be burning them. The hashtags #burnNike and #boycottNike were soon trending on Twitter as certain conservative activists tweeted videos of themselves dousing their Nike sportswear in lighter fluid and setting them ablaze for all to see, decrying the brand. President Trump also saw fit to take to Twitter to express his joy at Nike “getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts.” However, the Right was not to have the last laugh as five days later Nike’s sales had surged by 31%. The Left had heeded Nike’s call. And this was the very political base that had a decade earlier used the same #boycottNike hashtag to denounce Nike’s labor practices, including its use of sweatshops. Now, the Left was helping this very company’s profits soar.
By comparison, the apparently nonpartisan Jordan presents himself as a relic from a bygone era. It is, therefore, all the more surprising to find his brand is engaged in the most political act of the day, the untimely and forced jump start of the American economy. As the United States still struggles to contain the Coronavirus (COVID-19), finding itself with the highest number of related deaths and cases worldwide, Governor of Georgia Brian Kemp—a Republican—allowed shelter-in-place orders to expire and actively encouraged businesses to re-open. As a result—and in flagrant disregard for the still necessary social distancing measures—crowds gathered and queued outside of shops and inside malls in the hope of purchasing the new Air Jordan 5 “Fire Red” sneakers.
The decision to lift these orders, knowing the hysteria surrounding each of the brands’ releases can only register as a brazen act of putting profit before life. Historically, the release of Air Jordans has caused stampedes and scenes of jostling and violence at stores across America. So, it would have come as no surprise to Governor Kemp, Jordan, or consumers for that matter, what would happen when, on May 2nd, retail shops in Atlanta stocking the Air Jordan 5 opened for business. The sneaker had already sold out within days online.
Brand Jordan has superseded that of Nike itself; Michael Jordan is a brand unto himself. So, while Republicans and many on the Right denounce Nike, (unwittingly promoting them), and Kaepernick to this day—or any African American sporting celebrity that dares dishonor the flag or its national heroes—they will happily defy social distancing and mitigation measures, along with many others, to get their hands on the newest Air Jordans and help with President Trump’s reopening of the economy. Republicans still buy sneakers after all.
Al Binns is the author of The Incredibly Strange Creatures: Or How I Learned to Stop Being a Mixed-Up Zombie and Survive Modern Work!!? (2020) forthcoming with Zer0 Books.
Chris Cawkwell is a contemporary artist, whose practice explores and critiques consumerism within neoliberal frameworks